At the outbreak of war imperial policy did not allow 'native peoples' to fight in a war among Europeans. Permission was eventually granted for a Maori contingent to form part of New Zealand's war effort. A Native Contingent Committee co-ordinated Maori recruitment. The four Maori MPs, in particular Apirana Ngata and Maui Pomare, were key figures in this committee.
The Native Contingent Committee had set a quota of 150 recruits every four weeks. This quickly became a struggle to achieve. In the second and third drafts that sailed in September 1915 and February 1916 only a third were Maori – the rest were mostly Niueans and Rarotongans.
The Native Contingent Committee faced a lack of support from a significant sector of the Maori community. Many Maori from Taranaki, Ngati Maniapoto and the Tainui-Waikato regions did not respond to the call to fight for 'King and Country'. The events of the 1860s, when their land had been confiscated as punishment for being in rebellion against the British Crown, had left them questioning why they should now be expected to fight for the British.
Kingitanga leader Te Puea Herangi maintained that her grandfather, King Tawhiao, had forbidden Waikato to take up arms again when he made peace with the Crown in 1881. She was determined to uphold his call to Waikato to 'lie down' and 'not allow blood to flow from this time on'. Te Puea maintained that Waikato had 'its own King' and didn't need to 'fight for the British King'. If land that had been confiscated was returned, then perhaps Waikato might reconsider its position.
In trying to meet their quota some members of the Native Contingent Committee and the government tried to shame Maori into participation. Ngata pointed out that every letter he received from soldiers at the front asked for more reinforcements. His waiata 'Te Ope Tuatahi' praised those iwi who had already contributed and drew attention to those who had yet to serve.
Defence Minister James Allen made a direct appeal to Waikato pride in late 1916 when he urged Waikato Maori to 'save New Zealand from the fate of Belgium, and their women from being the sport of German bayonets'. At Waahi pa in November 1916 Allen told Waikato that 'if you fail now you and your tribes can never rest in honour in the days to come'.
When conscription for military service was introduced in 1916 it was initially imposed on Pakeha only. Pomare and Ngata wanted it applied to Maori as a matter of self-respect. Maori blood had been spilt overseas, and Maori had a duty to respond; utu was required.
Having failed to persuade Waikato, Allen supported the extension of conscription to Maori in June 1917 but decided to apply it to the Waikato–Maniapoto land district only. As other tribes had volunteered and filled the first two contingents, some in official circles considered the application of conscription in this way to be fair. Allen knew that this was also where the heart of the resistance lay. The inclusion of Ngati Maniapoto caused an outrage. Their rate of enlistment was much higher than that of Pomare's own people from Taranaki, who were excluded from the ballot. There was a feeling that Pomare was exacting revenge on Ngati Maniapoto–Waikato for the defeats Taranaki had suffered at their hands in the 19th century.
To make matters worse, the government compiled the register for the ballot using information that had been gathered in complete confidence at the 1916 Census. This was a violation of the law but was apparently agreed to by the Maori MPs.
Te Puea offered refuge at Te Paina pa (Mangatawhiri) for men who chose to ignore the ballot. Waikato were denounced as 'seditious traitors', while the revelation that Te Puea's grandfather had a German surname – Searancke – confirmed her status as a 'German sympathiser'. Te Puea pointed out that the Searanckes were at least four generations removed from their German origins and that the British royal family itself was German.
Colonel Patterson of the Auckland Military District wanted Te Puea punished and planned to goad her into making anti-conscription statements in front of reliable witnesses. This would allow her to be prosecuted under the War Regulations for 'inciting men not to enlist'. Others favoured a more cautious approach, fearing such action would simply increase her prestige. The government knew that under Te Puea's leadership the campaign was at least non-violent. In 1916 two Maori had been shot and killed by police attempting to arrest the Tuhoe leader Rua Kenana at Maungapohatu, in part for his active discouragement of Maori recruitment. The government did not want a repetition of this bloodshed.
Maui Pomare advised Allen that those at Te Paina were 'merely waiting to be taken to jail' and suggested a minimal show of force would suffice.
A crowd greeted police when they arrived at Te Paina on 13 July 1917. They were escorted into the meeting house where they read out the names of those to be arrested. Nobody moved. Te Puea made it clear that she would not co-operate. The police waded into the crowd and began arresting men they believed to be on their list. Mistakes were made. Te Puea's future husband, 16-year-old Rawiri Katipa, was mistaken for his older brother; a 60-year-old was also arrested. Each of the seven men selected had to be carried out of the meeting house.
King Te Rata's 16-year-old brother, Te Rauangaanga, was also seized. Police stepped over the King's personal flag, which had been protectively laid before Te Rauangaanga, and this caused great offence to those gathered. Te Puea intervened, calming the shocked onlookers and blessing those seized. She told the police to let the government know she was afraid of no law or anything else 'excepting the God of my ancestors'.
The prisoners were taken to the army training camp at Narrow Neck, Auckland. Those who refused to wear the army uniform were subjected, like other objectors, to severe military punishments, including 'dietary punishments' (being fed only bread and water) and being supplied with minimal bedding. When this failed, some were sentenced to two years' hard labour at Mount Eden prison.
Te Puea supported those who had been arrested by bringing them food (which never seemed to reach the inmates) and attempting to visit those in prison. She was a source of great inspiration to the prisoners. One of those detained, Mokona, described how Te Puea would sit outside the prison and when men went to the whare mimi (toilet) they were able to catch a glimpse of her. This was enough to make them want to 'invent an excuse to go to the whare mimi. The fact that she was there gave us heart to continue.'
Maui Pomare decided to make a direct appeal to Tainui and persuade them to abandon their resistance. This personal approach failed dismally. The fact that their men were now in prison merely hardened Tainui resolve. When Pomare attended a hui at Waahi pa in 1918, he was greeted with abusive haka composed specially for his visit. This culminated in the act of whakapohane (performers baring their buttocks in contempt for an unwelcome visitor).
Only a handful of Tainui men were ever put into uniform, and none of the Tainui conscripts were sent overseas. By 1919 only 74 Maori conscripts had gone to camp out of a total of 552 men called. When the war ended, those Maori in training were sent home, and all outstanding warrants were cancelled. What to do with the defaulters already in custody was a little trickier. Despite the military's objection, Cabinet decided in May 1919 to release all Maori prisoners. This decision was never made public because the government was determined not to treat other defaulters so leniently.
The imposition of conscription on the Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto people had long-lasting effects. The breach it caused was probably only restored with the Tainui Treaty settlement in 1995.